It was Christmas night in Provincetown, 1990. The crowd was “gay and cheery” and Peter Donnelly, a 30-year-old musician from Watertown, had been invited to sing. All he had on hand to perform were lovesick ballads, and, in Donnelly’s recollection, he “sang for a bit and really killed the party.”
But one man in the crowd, Ron Robin, liked what he heard. He invited Donnelly to sing at his restaurant, the Mews, that winter. And that was the beginning of Donnelly’s three-decades-long stint at the Mews.
On a brisk Thursday night last week, the 32nd season of the Coffeehouse at the Mews began. The crowd was buzzing, the ceiling was decorated with plastic skeletons and ghosts made of sheets, and string lights cast the room in a rosy hue. At 7 p.m., local poets and folk singers began their performances at the open mic.
Each Coffeehouse evening includes a featured performer, someone who can buoy the other performers whether they’re novices or regulars. Last week it was Mike Sullivan, a fixture at Tin Pan Alley. This year’s weekly Coffeehouse will run only through Christmas instead of all the way to early spring because of planned construction.
In the second act, Donnelly took the stage. He broke into “Tigers on the Loose,” a folky diatribe against magical thinking in all its forms, from cult leaders to yoga pants. Donnelly’s performance style has an air of Tom Waits but with a gentler demeanor. The audience laughed at every joke — magical thinking, Donnelly sang, can lead you to “eating poop”— and some began humming along.
Donnelly did not plan to become a fixture of Provincetown’s music scene. He served in the Navy, worked in construction, and attended UMass Boston in the late eighties. As he entered his final year of college, he found that none of the available classes appealed to him. So, he took the year off and opened the Simon and Garfunkel songbook on a whim. He realized that he needed only a handful of chords to play most of the songs on the guitar. He found that if he adjusted the key of a song to suit his vocal range, he could, to his surprise, sing. Lo and behold: he was a musician — and, he says, “just as much a poet.”
“I like words,” says Donnelly. “Some raw songwriters might be more focused on melody and rhythms, but I tend to focus on the story. I like how words fall together.”
The sound of the ocean, the feel of Provincetown, the conversations that townspeople have around their dining room tables — all these elements influence his work. He recalls being in town during the ’90s, when AIDS was ravaging the community, and writing about that experience. The Lady of the Dunes, a long-unidentified murder victim, made her way into his songs as well.
The central feature of Donnelly’s work is collaboration. For the last five years, he has performed in a duo called Donnelly & Richardson with Jon Richardson, and, for the last three years, they performed weekly at the Crown & Anchor over the summer. Despite having performed with dozens of artists in town, Donnelly finds that “relationships with musicians are always fraught with trouble because everybody moves around, everybody wants to do what they favor.”
In the summer, Donnelly rarely finds time to write. He performs with Richardson; organizes a concert series at Herring Cove called “Sunset Music on the Beach”; sells advertising for Provincetown Magazine; serves as studio manager for Peter Hutchinson, a famed member of Land Art movement; and busks. There is no time to think, he says.
In order to write, “I need to be quiet,” says Donnelly. “I need to be bored. I need to have ideas rattling around in my head for a while.” Once the calm of the winter arrives, he finds himself plucking at the guitar again in his cozy cottage off Pearl Street. He’s lived there for 15 years with his husband, Steve Desroches. The living room is decked out with a beaded curtain, an impressive variety of house plants, and a pop art portrait of Divine.
Donnelly is known for having performed at nearly every venue in town. How could he choose a single favorite when he knows all of them so well? Still, he names Sunset Music on the Beach, a series hosted by Far Land Provisions for the last decade, as his favorite place to perform. As the sun sets over the water at Herring Cove and a bonfire burns, people from all over the Cape dance and sing along to local bands.
“They know the bands,” he says. “The bands know them. You see kids dancing with their grandparents. It’s the warmest, most joyful thing I’ve ever been connected to.”